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Politics and Religion, 1 (2008), 27-54. Printed in the U.S.A. 

© 2008 Religion and Politics Research Section of the American Political Science Association 

doi: 10.1017/S1755048308000035 1755-0483/08 $25.00 

Turning the Other Cheek to 
Terrorism: Reflections on the 
Contemporary Significance of Leo 
Tolstoy's Exegesis of the Sermon on 
the Mount 

Alexandre J. M. E. Christoyannopoulos 

University of Kent 

Abstract: The "war on terror" has brought to the fore the old debate on the role 
of religion in politics and international relations, a question on which Tolstoy 
wrote extensively during the latter part of his life. He considered Jesus to 
have clearly spelt out some rational moral and political rules for conduct, the 
most important of which was non-resistance to evil. For Tolstoy, Jesus' 
instructions not to resist evil, to love one's enemies and not to judge one 
another together imply that a sincere Christian would denounce any form of 
violence and warfare, and would strive to respond to (whatever gets denned 
as) evil with love, not force. In today's "war on terror," therefore, Tolstoy 
would lament both sides' readiness to use violence to reach their aims; and 
he would call for Christians in particular to courageously enact the rational 
wisdom contained in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Tolstoy's exegesis of 
Christianity may be too literal and too rationalistic, and may lead to an 
exceedingly Utopian political vision; but it articulates a refreshingly peaceful 
method for religion to shape politics, one that can moreover and 
paradoxically be related to by non-Christians precisely because of its alleged 
grounding in reason. 

The "war on terror(ism)," we are told by Western politicians, is a war that 
will take time to win; but eventually, thanks to the sheer power and deter- 
mination of Western forces, freedom and democracy will prevail over 
"evil," over the enemies of civilization. If Leo Tolstoy could hear this, 

The author wishes to thank the editors and two anonymous readers for their detailed comments on 
earlier drafts of this article, as well as the anonymous referees from previous journal submissions, the 
friends and the family members who examined earlier drafts, and the scholars who commented on 
presentations of this paper at the Political Studies Association and elsewhere. 

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Alexandre J. M. E. Christoyannopoulos, 
University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NZ E-mail: 


28 Christoyannopoulos 

however, he would be incensed, because according to him, the essence of 
the teaching of Jesus — a figure so central to this Western civilization — is 
about non-resistance to evil, about Christian love, and non-violence. 
Therefore, instead of rushing to overpower terrorists, Tolstoy would 
call for Westerners to pay more attention to Jesus' words, to honestly 
reflect upon the rational wisdom contained in them. He would further 
suggest that such a careful reading in fact reveals a political attitude 
that recommends an unusual and peaceful way of responding to violence. 
In other words, Tolstoy would argue that a truly Christian response to the 
"war on terror" would be radically different to the one advocated by 
many self-proclaimed Christians today. 

This article is premised on the view that the "war on terror" calls for 
the political implications of religious traditions to be openly examined 
anew. If religious facades are not to be misused by opportunistic 
leaders, then scholars should not shy away from an open-minded and 
thorough examination of the political implications of religious traditions. 
This actually means approaching these religions as genuine, alternative 
political theories. Despite the hopes of the Enlightenment, religion 
today remains stubbornly embedded in politics. Therefore the direct pol- 
itical significance of religious philosophies continues to demand meticu- 
lous, tolerant academic attention. 

Precisely on this topic, and more specifically on the political impli- 
cations of Christianity, Tolstoy raised several points that could offer inter- 
esting first steps on pathways for further thinking. His approach itself may 
not be always careful, tolerant or academic, but his message is still perti- 
nent and worth pondering in today's political climate, because he high- 
lights a peaceful yet often forgotten dimension of Jesus' message to 
humanity. The purposes of this article, therefore, are to introduce the 
reader to Tolstoy's understanding of what a Christian and in fact, for 
Tolstoy, a rational response to violence should be; to thereby demonstrate 
that political acts inspired by Christianity should probably never take a 
violent form; to reflect, in light of this, upon some of the challenges 
posed by the "war on terror;" and to thereby contribute to, and invite 
further thinking on, what might be seen as an unconventional Christian 
political theory. The ultimate aim is not to provide a final answer for 
how Christians should respond to terrorism, but to stimulate debate by 
presenting Tolstoy's radical views on the topic. 

To this end, a summary of Tolstoy's exegesis of Jesus' teaching will 
point out some of the plain moral rules that he drew out of his understand- 
ing of Christianity, in particular, the commandment never to resist evil. 

Turning the Other Cheek to Terrorism 29 

This will then provoke a few reflections on how a Christian sympathetic 
to Tolstoy would be expected to respond to terrorism. Given the obscurity 
of Tolstoy's thought today, the third part of this article will go beyond the 
immediate aim of reflecting on the "war on terror" by alluding to the par- 
tiality of Tolstoy's approach to religion, and to his Christian anarchist 
vision for society. This article will then conclude by reaffirming the rel- 
evance of Tolstoy's radical voice in the twenty-first century. 


Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is more famous today for his celebrated novels 
than for his critical essays on religion and politics. Yet for the last thirty 
years of his long life, after a traumatic period of growing existential ques- 
tioning that culminated in his conversion to Christianity, Tolstoy concen- 
trated his writings on elucidating the "true meaning" of Jesus' teaching 
and its consequences for the way a Christian is to approach political 
affairs (for comprehensive biographical information on Tolstoy, see 
eminent works such as Leon 1944; Maude 1930a; Troyat 1967; Wilson 

His understanding of Jesus was a bluntly rationalistic one (and some of 
the problems with this will be discussed further below). Tolstoy deliber- 
ately disregarded the "superstitious," supernatural elements of 
Christianity, which he considered to have been deliberately inserted 
into Jesus' message by malicious political manipulators. Miracles, the 
Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the doctrine of Original Sin, or the 
Redemption of mankind through Christ were all fantastic stories designed 
to hypnotize the masses into submission (Tolstoy 1902, 1934b, 1934f). 
According to Tolstoy, the existence of God can be established rationally, ' 
and Jesus was simply "the highest representative of [humanity's] 
wisdom" (Tolstoy 200 Id, 507) — so the essence of Christianity was 
therefore not some mysterious Resurrection but the very rational teaching 
that Jesus personally shared with his followers. For Tolstoy, the universal 
authority of Jesus derives not from his divine status, but from his supreme 
articulation of reason. 

Having thus extracted from the Gospel all these irrational additives, 
Tolstoy was left with a set of "moral, clear, and comprehensible rules" 
(Tolstoy 1902, 13), the best summary of which was to be found in 
Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, chapters five to seven of Matthew's 
Gospel. More specifically, Tolstoy regarded the second part of the fifth 

30 Christoyannopoulos 

chapter as presenting "five new, clear, and definite commandments" 
(Tolstoy, 1902, 67) that clearly supersede the old Mosaic Law (for a 
more detailed explanation of this, see Tolstoy 1902, 50-66). Tolstoy 
summarizes these five commandments as follows: "(1) Do not be 
angry, but live at peace with all men. (2) Do not indulge yourself in 
sexual gratification. (3) Do not promise anything on oath to anyone. (4) 
Do not resist evil, do not judge and do not go to law. (5) Make no distinc- 
tion of nationality, but love foreigners as your own people" (Tolstoy 
1933, 167). These instructions were for Tolstoy to become the basis of 
his social, political, and economic views. 

Resist Not Evil 

Of all five commandments, however, one plainly stood out and revealed, 
according to Tolstoy, the absolute essence of Jesus' teaching — the rest 
of the Gospel was just further detailing of this key instruction (Tolstoy 
1902, 9-25). In the King James Version of the Bible, 2 this crucial direc- 
tive reads as follows: 

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy 
right cheek, turn to him the other also. 

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy 
cloak also. 

And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. 

Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not 
thou away. (Matthew 5:38-42, King James Version's italics removed) 

Tolstoy understood Jesus as spelling out a completely new and wiser 
method for human beings to deal with evil: when coerced, do not retali- 
ate, but obey, and do so exemplarily — even if you get persecuted for it. 
Tolstoy further reflected on this startling, lucid command, and realized 
that truly, the whole history of mankind displayed repeated and yet ulti- 
mately disastrous endeavors to resist evil with evil, to respond with violence 
to threats of violence, to go to war to prevent another war (Kennan 1887). 
But violent resistance only aggravates any given problem: for Tolstoy, it 
aggrieves the relatives of those who have been wronged, and worse, it can 
then be used to legitimize the other side's use of violence in reply; the 

Turning the Other Cheek to Terrorism 31 

parties are then caught in a brutal game of tit-f or-tat that spreads into "a uni- 
versal reign of violence" (Kennan 1887, 259). Thus, when the oppressed 
grow stronger and eventually take control, they resentfully avenge them- 
selves, and in turn become the new oppressors (Tolstoy 1987b, 161-164). 
In the end, an eye for eye can only make the whole world go blind. 3 

It became clear to Tolstoy that this old approach to evil is both 
irrational and unchristian. It is irrational because in the long run, it 
does not guarantee that the end for which violent means are used will 
be satisfactorily secured. And it is unchristian because Jesus blatantly 
condemned it — both verbally and in the way he responded to his 
arrest, trial, and crucifixion. In Tolstoy's words, this was Jesus' 
message to mankind: "You think that your laws correct evil; they only 
increase it. There is only one way of extirpating evil — to return good 
to all men without distinction. You have tried your principle for thou- 
sands of years; try now mine, which is the reverse" (Tolstoy 1902, 41). 
Tolstoy then proudly consolidated his point: 

It may be affirmed that the constant fulfilment of this rule is difficult, and 
that not every man will find his happiness in obeying it. It may be said that 
it is foolish; that, as unbelievers pretend, Jesus was a visionary, an idealist, 
whose impracticable rules were only followed because of the stupidity of 
his disciples. But it is impossible not to admit that Jesus did say very 
clearly and definitely that which he intended to say: namely, that men 
should not resist evil; and that therefore he who accepts his teaching 
cannot resist. (Tolstoy 1902, 18-19) 

An honest Christian, according to Tolstoy, cannot deny that Jesus called 
for men not to resist evil. So for Tolstoy, whoever describes himself as 
a Christian and yet is caught resisting evil would have to be, quite 
frankly, a hypocrite — namely one of those whom Jesus denigrated as 
blind fools who appear righteous but are in fact full of iniquity 
(Tolstoy 1902, 50-66; Matthew 23; Luke 11). 

The implications of this commandment for how Christians are to 
conduct international relations are obvious: if resistance to evil is 
rebuked by Jesus, then war is a plainly unchristian act. That so many 
wars have been fought in the name of Christianity does not prove war 
to be compatible with it; what it does show, however, is that Jesus' teach- 
ing has been (for Tolstoy, intentionally) evaded for so many centuries 
(Tolstoy 1902, 1934b, 1934h, 2001c). 4 Besides, apart from the whole 
Gospel in general, which he felt confirmed the commandment of 

32 Christoyannopoulos 

non-resistance, Tolstoy further pointed to two other specific passages 

within the Sermon on the Mount that corroborate, from a different 
angle, the Christian rejection of war. 

Judge Not 

The first such passage is one that Tolstoy incorporates in his broader 
exegesis of the commandment not to resist evil, since it is alluded to in 
the same breath when Jesus refers to "being sued at the law." Later in 
the Sermon, in the beginning of Matthew's seventh chapter, Jesus 
further states the following: 

Judge not, that ye be not judged. 

For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what 
measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again. 

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but consid- 
erest not the beam that is in thine own eye? 

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine 
eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? 

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt 
thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. (Matthew 
7:1-5, King James Version's italics removed) 

Tolstoy additionally remarks that the order not to judge one another is 
further reiterated by several of Jesus' parables, by his response to the 
proposed stoning of the adulteress, as well as much later in the New 
Testament by James and by Paul (Luke 6:37-42; John 8:1—11; James 
4:11-12; Romans 2:1-4). 

And again, the instruction, says Tolstoy, could not have been much 
clearer. Human beings are fallible and hence unqualified to judge one 
another, let alone punish any perceived wickedness. Tolstoy interprets "jud- 
gement" In the broad sense of not just forming an opinion about the situ- 
ation (beholding the mote), but acting upon it (pulling it out), especially 
without considering whether one is not guilty of a similar fault (the 
beam). Since all men are at least partly blinded by their own wickedness, 
for them to dare to accuse, judge, and punish one another is misguided 
and somewhat hypocritical. Man has no prerogative to convict his 
fellow. Therefore this instruction does indeed bring further credence 

Turning the Other Cheek to Terrorism 33 

(albeit indirectly) to the above rule of non-resistance: if one is unable to cor- 
rectly discern what is evil from what is not, not least because one is oneself 
tainted by evil, then acting upon such perception is bound to produce further 
harm. One cannot resist and exterminate evil if one is unable to accurately 
assess one's own evil in the first place (Tolstoy 1902, 26-40). 

Love Your Enemies 

The other passage that leads Tolstoy to conclude that war must be unchris- 
tian is actually the commandment that immediately follows the one of 
non-resistance to evil, wherein Jesus calls his followers to love even 
their enemies: 

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and 
hate thine enemy. 

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good 
to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and 
persecute you; 

That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he 
maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on 
the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45) 

Here, however, Tolstoy initially felt this instruction to be an "exaggeration" 
of the command not to resist evil (Tolstoy 1902, 88). How could one 
actually love one's personal enemy? Not resisting evil would be very 
hard but could be done, yet bringing oneself to genuinely love one's 
enemy sounded strictly impossible. And then Tolstoy realized there 
was another oddity: while in the previous four commandments, Jesus 
quotes the exact words of the old law, here, he appears to be misquoting 
it (Tolstoy 1902, 89). Why would Jesus calumniate the old law? 

Tolstoy found the appeasing answer to both questions in a lexicon. 
That is, as many other passages from the Bible indeed confirmed, "neigh- 
bour" In Jewish simply meant a fellow Jew. Similarly, "enemy," in the 
Gospel is usually used not to denote a private enemy, but a public or 
national one. This would then make sense of the commandment: first, 
Jesus does not calumniate the old law, but he simply brings together 
the many ancient orders to oppress other nations into one single 
saying; second, again according to Tolstoy, Jesus is not asking his fol- 
lowers to love their personal enemies, but simply to consider foreigners 

34 Christoyannopoulos 

with the same love and respect as fellow countrymen. In other words, the 
old law stimulated patriotism, but Jesus supersedes it with a new 
command; that is, Jesus calls his disciples to disregard national bound- 
aries and to treat all nationalities in the same loving way. Patriotism is 
thus rejected, but so are all actions that are based upon, or that further 
incite, national distinctions — such as war or military preparations for 
war (Tolstoy 1902, 90-92). So from yet another angle, international 
warfare is, for Tolstoy, a most unchristian activity. 5 

The Heart of Jesus' Message 

Tolstoy's idiosyncratic exegesis of the Bible therefore ignored established 
commentaries and understood Jesus' teaching in a very literal and rational 
manner. He stripped away all elements of supernatural mystery and was 
thus left only with an ethical system, a set of moral rules for conduct that 
he considered to be best expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. 6 Even if 
one-sided and disrespectful to the rest of the traditional canon, Tolstoy 
does emphasize a thought-provoking dimension of the Christian teaching, 
one that is in the heart of the New Testament for all to see. Whatever the 
shortfalls of his hermeneutical method (which will be returned to further 
below), he does draw out Jesus' very eloquent condemnation of any form 
of resistance to evil. 

The implications for the realm of politics and international relations are 
fairly self-explanatory: war or terrorism, the most extensive forms of 
resistance to (whatever gets defined as) evil, are for Tolstoy, clearly 
unchristian activities. So while justifications for resistance may be fabri- 
cated on a variety of theoretical foundations, they cannot coherently 
be rooted in a Christian perspective of the world. And anyhow, resistance 
is in fact an irrational method in the face of evil, because violence breeds 
further violence. 

The beauty of the Christian message is thus that there can be no differ- 
ence between means and ends. The means are the ends, and by the same 
token violence is evil. Hence, to use a more Christian phrase, only love 
can bring about love. War cannot bring lasting peace; resistance can 
only bring more resistance further down the line. If one wants peace, 
one must act peacefully. Terrorizing one's neighbor guarantees terrorism 
in return; loving one's neighbor is the only way to realistically expect 
love in return. That, for Tolstoy, is the absolute essence of the 
Christian teaching. 

Turning the Other Cheek to Terrorism 35 

Protecting Our Loved Ones 

Many objections to pure non-resistance have been formulated over the 
years, and Tolstoy responds to some of them in his writings (for instance, 
Tolstoy 1902, 19-25, 85-95; Tolstoy 2001c, 34-54). Due to limited 
space, they cannot all be listed here. In any case, Tolstoy's typical 
answer is that none of the usual objections are actually grounded in 
Jesus' teaching. They are based on all sorts of theoretical arguments, 
but not on what Jesus said. 

One such objection, however, ought to be addressed here, because it 
seems to be grounded in scripture, and because limited violence and war 
continue to be based upon it. The argument is that one' s love for one ' s neigh- 
bor implies a duty to protect him, even by the reluctant adoption of violence 
if necessary. The more extreme version of this argument asks how a 
Christian non-resistant would react if his own child was being attacked. 

Tolstoy responds to this objection several times across his writings 
(Kennan 1887, 256-259; Tolstoy 1967b, 186-188; Tolstoy 1975, 21-23; 
Tolstoy 1987b, 214-216; Tolstoy 2001b, 534). For a start, he remarks 
that it is generally but mistakenly assumed that the only possible reply 
to save the child is to kill the assailant (Tolstoy 1967b, 186). Yet he 
notes that it is never certain that an evil act would have indeed been com- 
mitted — but that our own violence would itself be evil and a likely cause 
of further evil (Tolstoy 1967b, 186-188; Tolstoy 1987b, 214-216; 
Tolstoy 2001c, 39-40). For Tolstoy, the only type of response available 
to a Christian faithful to Jesus' teaching would be to "plead with 
the assailant" or to "interpose his body between the assailant and the 
victim," but that "he cannot deliberately abandon the law he has received 
from God" (Tolstoy 1967b, 187). Either way, violence is not the only 

Moreover, Tolstoy writes, "None of us has ever yet met the imaginary 
criminal with the imaginary child, but all the horrors which fill the annals 
of history and of our own times came, and come, from this one thing, 
namely, that people will believe they really foresee speculative future 
results of action" (Tolstoy 1967b, 188). Men are convinced violence 
will lead to the desired solution and thus fill the annals of history with 
their violent actions, which that one imaginary child continues to legiti- 
mize. As Tolstoy replied to someone else who brought up this argument, 

I have never, except in discussions, encountered that fantastic brigand who 
before my eyes desired to kill or violate a child, but [...]! perpetually did 

36 Christoyannopoulos 

and do see not one but millions of brigands using violence towards chil- 
dren and women and men and old people and all the labourers, in the 
name of a recognized right to do violence to their fellows. (Tolstoy 
2001b, 534) 

People, Tolstoy laments, worry about an imaginary — or at least very 
rare — defenseless child, but not about the real suffering of so many 
of their neighbors as a result of the acceptance of violence as an appro- 
priate method to respond to real or hypothetical aggression (Tolstoy 
1975, 21-22). 

Tolstoy does not brush aside the very real torture, rape and murder 
which are committed in warfare. He is acutely aware of these horrors 
of war. Indeed, his celebrated War and Peace reveals his fascination 
with the social processes that can lead sensible human beings to such 
mass slaughter as the Napoleonic Wars (Tolstoy 1993b). After his con- 
version to Christianity, however, the slight touches of awe which may 
have transpired in his earlier writings disappear, and Tolstoy adopts an 
outright aversion of war in all its forms. As an illustration, these are 
the words he writes to describe the next war which he believes Russia 
to be inevitably heading toward: 

And hundreds of thousands of simple kindly folk, torn from their wives, 
mothers, and children, and with murderous weapons in their hands, will 
trudge wherever they may be driven, stifling the despair in their souls by 
songs, debauchery, and vodka. They will march, freeze, suffer from 
hunger, and fall ill. Some will die of disease, and some will at last 
come to the place where men will kill them by the thousand. And they, 
too, without themselves knowing why, will murder thousands of others 
whom they had never before seen, and who had neither done nor could 
do them any wrong. (Tolstoy 2001a, 449) 

Tolstoy is aware of the horrors of war, but where he differs from the 
majority of political thinkers, and indeed where the essence of his contri- 
bution lies, is in his utter conviction that to eradicate such horrors, human 
beings need to stop fighting and start loving and forgiving, even at the 
cost of very real sacrifices and suffering in the short run. That is what 
he understands Jesus' teaching to be about. 

For Tolstoy, the suffering resulting from non-resistance is not worse 
than the suffering resulting from war — but at least it might lead human- 
ity toward a brighter future. Of course, it is very difficult, especially when 
talking about one's own child. But for Tolstoy, the use of violence in 

Turning the Other Cheek to Terrorism 37 

defense will only aggrieve yet another family — and the cycle of vio- 
lence thus continues. In a sense, Tolstoy is a cold rationalist: it is just 
rational for him not to resist because, first, resistance does not guarantee 
that one will save one's life or that of one's child anyway, and second, 
non-resistance is the only way to open the possibility for peace in the 
long run. According to Tolstoy's understanding of Jesus, non-resistance 
is the only truly rational option in the long run, and in the short run, 
the suffering it entails is not worse than the suffering likely to ensue 
from violent resistance. Therefore, even to protect one's loved ones, 
Tolstoy does not believe violence can be justified. 

Perhaps the most eloquent and powerful response to this objection, 
however, comes not from Tolstoy, but from Adin Ballou, a non-resistant 
whom Tolstoy quotes at length and with respect (Tolstoy 2001c, 11-21). 
Ballou' s answer is quite long, but every sentence of it is powerful enough 
to warrant the following extended quotation: 

'Well,' says the objector, 'I should like to know how you would manage 
matters if the ruffian should actually break into your house with settled 
intent to rob and murder. Would you shrink back like a coward and see 
your wife and children slaughtered before your eyes?' I cannot tell how 
I might act in such a dreadful emergency — how weak and frail I 
should prove. But I can tell how I ought to act — how I should wish 
to act. If I am a firm, consistent non-resistant, I should prove myself no 
coward; for it requires the noblest courage and the highest fortitude to 
be a true non-resistant. If I am what I ought to be, I should be calm and 
unruffled by the alarm at my door. I should meet my wretched fellow- 
man with a spirit, an air, a salutation, and a deportment so Christ-like, 
so little expected, so confounding, and so morally irresistible that in all 
probability his weapons of violence and death would fall harmless to his 
side. I would say, 'Friend, why do you come here? Surely not to injure 
those who wish you nothing but good? This house is one of peace and 
friendship to all mankind. If you are cold, warm yourself at our fire; if 
hungry, refresh yourself at our table; if you are weary, sleep in our bed; 
if you are destitute, poor, and needy, freely take of our goods. Come, let 
us be friends, that God may keep us all from evil and bless us with his pro- 
tection.' What would be the effect of such treatment as this? Would it not 
completely overcome the feelings of the invader, so as either to make him 
retreat inoffensively out of the house, or at least forbear all meditated vio- 
lence? Would it not be incomparably safer than to rush to the shattered 
door, half distracted with alarm, grasping some deadly weapon and 
bearing it aloft, looking fiery wrath and mad defiance at the enemy? 
How soon would follow the mortal encounter, and how extremely 

38 Christoyannopoulos 

uncertain the outcome? The moment I appeared in such an attitude (just 
the thing expected), would not the ruffian's coolness and well-trained mus- 
cular force be almost sure to seal the fate of my family and myself? But in 
acting the non-resistant part, should I not be likely, in nine cases out of ten, 
to escape with perfect safety? (Ballou 1839, 15-16) 

Ballou's answer is so moving in part because it recalls so eloquently that 
non-resistance is not separable from a broader Christian attitude of love 
and care: feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, caring for the 
afflicted — true love of neighbor and enemy — is likely to prevent 
anger and violence from arising in the first place. He admits that it is dif- 
ficult, and that he might fail in doing what Jesus demands, but he rejects 
the idea that one ought to use violence to protect one's loved ones, 
because in the long run, a loving and non-resistant attitude is more 
likely to save us than an aggressive response. 

Tolstoy agrees: any violent response sows the seeds of further violence, 
and justifies the other side's right to use violence to protect what it regards 
as its own vital interests (Kennan 1887). Moreover, in a truly Christian 
society — where no-one would use violence against others, where all 
would care for, give to and help every single human being — in such a 
society, the risk for violence to arise would be very low in the first 
place (Tolstoy 1902, 218). Thus the best response to the imaginary crim- 
inal wishing to rape or murder the imaginary child is not necessarily to 
use violence in reply, and anyway, a truly Christian society would 
almost eliminate the risk of such violence arising in the first place. 
Tolstoy (and Ballou) therefore rejects the argument whereby violence 
may be needed to protect one's neighbor. For him, there can be no com- 
promise, no exception to Jesus' rule of turning the other cheek. Besides, 
he notes that "no confirmation of such an interpretation can be found 
anywhere in Christ's teaching" (Tolstoy 2001c, 38). 


Such an understanding of Christianity has at least two important impli- 
cations for the "war on terror:" for a start, Christians would be called 
to renounce the use of violence; but also and more fundamentally, the 
problem of terrorism would be seen in a very different light in the first 

Turning the Other Cheek to Terrorism 39 

Renouncing the Use of Force 

The first and most imperative comment that Tolstoy would make on the 
"war on terror" would be to point out the dangerous delusion that both 
sides entertain by thinking that their end justifies whatever violent 
means. For Tolstoy, this delusion is the very evil that must be overcome, 
because Jesus rationally establishes that whether the other is truly wicked 
or not, the only constructive reaction is non-resistance — it is the only 
long term solution (Tolstoy 1902, 1934d, 2001c). 

This does not mean that one ought not to react at all, to remain 
hopelessly passive when attacked. Jesus describes what action to take 
when he calls for turning the other cheek, for instance, whatever the 
consequences — not "for sheer suffering's sake," but so as not to resist 
evil, even if that does entail suffering (Tolstoy 1902, 17). It is a purpose- 
ful response, one that represents an ultimate act of love, patience, and for- 
giveness. The hope is that such compelling demonstration of love is 
bound to eventually soften the heart of the violent enemy, of "evil." Of 
course, there is no guarantee that it will. It opens the road of apparent 
victory to the enemy, but the victim's suffering can in turn touch the 
heart of the enemy — at least of substantial sections of its population. 
Thus, while the enemy may be seemingly winning all the battles in 
the short run, in the broader campaign for hearts and minds, his physical 
force could well result in moral failure, and an eventual change of heart. 
Willingness to suffer out of love and forgiveness can have a powerful 
moral effect on the aggressor. 

After all, Jesus' sacrifice did ultimately enchant many disbelievers; and 
Gandhi, who was influenced by Tolstoy and considered him "one of the 
clearest thinkers in the western world" (Tolstoy 1937b, 1937d, 414), did 
succeed in overpowering the mighty British Empire. Gandhi in turn 
inspired Martin Luther King and the "peaceniks" of the 1960s, both of 
which also achieved some success in the causes they were campaigning 
for. Put simply, love, as a tactic, can work; the battle can be won on 
moral grounds. Non-resistance does not imply the final victory of the 
enemy; on the contrary, it can ultimately win him over, and do so in a 
non-coercive and reputable way. 

But here an ambiguity arises: Tolstoy, and even more so, some of his 
twentieth century followers, would seem to have somewhat innocently 
misread the "non-resistance to evil" of Matthew's chapter 5, verse 39, 
as "non-resistance to evil by evil." That is, it would seem that Tolstoy 
genuinely misinterpreted the injunction to mean that no physical force 

40 Christoyannopoulos 

should be used to resist evil — hence that non- violent resistance could be 
tolerated (Maude 1930b, 250; Maude 1933, xv). Indeed, to George 
Kennan's question whether resistance to oppression was justifiable, 
Tolstoy replied: "That depends upon what you mean by resistance; 
if you mean persuasion, argument, protest, I answer yes; if you mean 
violence — no. I do not believe that violent resistance to evil is ever 
justifiable under any circumstances" (Kennan 1887, 256). 7 

Did Tolstoy thereby misapprehend Jesus' commandment? Did Jesus, 
in fact, never ever resist? In all fairness, Tolstoy probably estimated 
that Jesus did sometimes "resist" to the extent that he spoke out, 
argued with his detractors, and tried to persuade them of their wrong. 
Does this mean that Jesus did not abide by his own instruction? The 
answer depends in part on how much one focuses on the letter rather 
than the spirit of the Sermon. Jesus' actions were always grounded in 
the spirit of love. In the end, the highest principle and ultimate reference 
on which all Christian guidelines are based is love — Jesus frequently 
repeats that love of God and of one's neighbor are the two most funda- 
mental commandments on which the whole law subsequently hangs 
(for example, Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:30-31; John 13:34-35). 
So for instance, in cases where strict non-resistance would imply the 
transgression of the more fundamental Christian principle of love, then 
the secondary command of non-resistance would presumably have to 
be proportionally moderated. 

Tolstoy for example, called for men to protest against their conscription 
into the army, 8 and for citizens not to pay taxes, both in order to deny the 
state its chief instruments of violent oppression (the next section will 
further explain why Tolstoy considered the state to be evil). Yet he 
also said that nevertheless, "following the command of non-resistance 
to evil, men should yield what goods and labor the authorities may 
demand" (Tolstoy 1933, 288). Thus, one should not automatically 
obey — in anticipation, as it were, of a future threat of violence — but 
only when eventually pressed should one then yield (or not resist). For 
instance, one should neither willingly pay taxes nor resist the state's 
eventual compulsory seizure of them. And even when yielding to force, 
Christian love should always remain paramount. So for example, if 
forced into a military campaign, then one should still not kill fellow 
human beings — that is, not fire back when shot at. No violence 
should be used, and whatever alternative to it is adopted, love of God 
and of one's neighbor should always remain the supreme benchmark 
for all action. 

Turning the Other Cheek to Terrorism 41 

In short, there is apparently no easy, nicely predefined answer to any 
given situation where one may be driven to feel like resisting. For sure, 
violent resistance would still clearly be at odds with Jesus' command. 
Whether non-violent resistance could sometimes be tolerated, however, 
remains unclear. When faced with evil, some response is certainly 
called for; but it seems that this reaction, coming from an honest 
Christian, could never be violent. Tolstoy's own reaction to violence 
was to spread his gospel in various essays, plays, and novels — his pro- 
tests were largely verbal. 9 Gandhi applied the principle of non-violence 
much more confrontationally; King and later pacifists pushed it even 
further into tactical political activism. 

Either way, according to Tolstoy, violence and violent resistance stand 
plainly condemned by Jesus' teaching. If one must resist because, say, not 
doing so would force a worse transgression of the spirit of Jesus' teaching, 
then one should at least not use violence in such resistance. Even better 
and certainly more Christian, however, would be non-resistance and 
forgiveness — the symbolic turning of the other cheek. In the "war on 
terror," therefore, Tolstoy would be eager to remind "Christians" that 
any use of violence would stand condemned by Jesus and that the spec- 
trum of possible Christian responses to terrorism would range quite 
narrowly from non-resistance to non-violent resistance — anything 
more would reveal a disobedience of Jesus' commandments. 

At any rate, whether the "correct" interpretation is closer to strict non- 
resistance or to a more ambiguous non-violent resistance, following 
either method remains an extremely difficult task. Then again Jesus 
warned, as Tolstoy reminds us, that he who has not taken up his 
cross — that is, he who is not prepared to face the ultimate consequence 
of non-resistance to evil — cannot be his disciple (Tolstoy 1902, 18; 
Matthew 16:24-28; Mark 8:34-38; Luke 9:23-27). 10 The path shown 
by Jesus is a difficult one that can only be trod by true martyrs. A 
"martyr," etymologically, is he who makes himself a witness to his 
faith. And it is the ultimate testimony to one's faith to be ready to put 
it to practice even when one's very life is threatened. But the life to be 
sacrificed, it should be noted, is not the enemy's life, but the martyr's 
own life — killing others is not a testimony of love, but of anger, fear, 
or hatred. For Tolstoy, therefore, a true martyr to Jesus' message would 
neither punish nor resist (or at least not use violence to resist), but 
would strive to act from love, however hard, whatever the likelihood of 
being crucified. 11 He would patiently learn to forgive and turn the 
other cheek, even at the risk of death. Such would be the only way to 

42 Christoyannopoulos 

eventually win the hearts and minds of the other camp and open up the 
possibilities for reconciliation in the "war on terror." 

On Terrorism 

For that matter, the expression "war on terror" is unhelpful, really. For 
one thing, from the victim's perspective, any act of violence can be ter- 
rifying. That is, to the extent that any use of force "terrorizes" the tar- 
geted population, war is terrorism, only with more conventional tactics. 
True, terrorists strike in a deliberately indiscriminate manner, whereas 
conventional armies at least try to be more precise in their selection of 
targets. But collateral damage, the heavily disproportionate scale of con- 
ventional power, and the typical perception that one is suffering unjustly 
from the consequences of warfare, together ensure that from the perspec- 
tive of the one whose cheek is struck, war can easily be perceived as an 
act of violence that is just as terrifying as terrorism (for an interesting and 
controversial discussion of what constitutes terrorism, and on how a 
state's actions can also be seen to amount to terrorism, see Chomsky 

Besides, Tolstoy would refuse to label terrorists as inhuman or evil 
beings per se; for him, these are human beings whose mistake was to 
choose the evil method of violence as a desperate response to perceived 
injustices against their people and values. It is not the terrorists who are 
"evil," but their reaction to what they themselves considered to be "evil" 
in the first place. 12 So although there are important differences between con- 
ventional warfare and terrorism, for Tolstoy, both tactics spring from the 
same mistaken attitude to what is perceived as evil — and in fact, it is in 
this very mistake that the evil resides. This is why "war on terror" is an 
unhelpful expression; if anything, it accidentally betrays a wide spread 
blindness to the self-fulfilling origin of the very problem that this "war" 
claims to tackle. More often than not, terrorists justify their actions as the 
last available option to respond to acts of violence committed against 
them; so responding to terrorism by further violence, for Tolstoy, can 
only guarantee a worsening cycle of violence for the future. 

According to Tolstoy, therefore, the problem is not terrorism but the 
use of force, of which terrorism is just another (admittedly particularly 
gruesome) method. Tolstoy would therefore predict that terrorism will 
not be resolved by war; it will spread. In his own era, Tolstoy condemned 
both the state's violence and the revolutionaries that tried to violently 

Turning the Other Cheek to Terrorism 43 

overthrow it (using methods akin to terrorism), because both used violent 
means to achieve their aims, and so by their acts, both were only aggra- 
vating the situation (Tolstoy 1937c, 1937e, 1937f). The real problem, 
according to Tolstoy, is anyone's readiness to use violence in attempting 
to resist the other. Evil will not be defeated by violence, because what is 
evil in a wicked act is not the actor as such, but the very violence that this 
actor is ready to inflict. 

In other words, the harmful element in "us versus them" is not "them," 
but "us" inasmuch as we see the situation as a fierce "versus." To the 
extent that both sides of the "war on terror" are ready to use violence 
either in alleged self-defense or in open "crusade" against one another, 
by that very act they embody the "evil" they claim to be trying to elimin- 
ate. And until both sides grasp this, Tolstoy would expect the "war on 
terror" to painfully linger on. Therefore, Tolstoy would call for both 
antagonists in the "war on terror" not to use violence in their attempt to 
achieve their vision for society. Surely, he contends, human beings must 
be able to devise "better means of improving the conditions of humanity 
than by killing people whose destruction can be of no more use than the 
decapitation of that mythical monster on whose neck a new head appeared 
as soon as one was cut off?" (Tolstoy 1937e, 197) 

Back in his own time, Tolstoy had tried to warn about the terrible cycle 
of violence that was likely to engulf both his country, and the world at 
large if Jesus' advice was not heeded (Tolstoy 1937c, 1937e, 1937f, 
2001a, 200 Id). And for a time, his fellow Russians did seem to be care- 
fully listening to his voice; Tolstoy certainly became a very influential 
figure in Russia — a commentator indeed reports that there were, at the 
turn of the century, two powers in Russia: Tsar Nicholas II and Leo 
Tolstoy (Kentish 1987, 9). But in the end, Tolstoy's message was not 
to be heard amid the voices calling for violent revolution and war, and 
shortly after his death in 1910, the world entered perhaps the darkest 
ages of its history so far. Various heads of the mythical monster were 
cut-off, both nationally (the Bolshevik Revolution) and internationally 
(the First World War), only for new ones to promptly replace them. 

Now that the world is becoming engulfed into yet another war of 
global proportions, Tolstoy would once again call for the moderates 
from both sides to seriously ask themselves whether the path they are 
choosing can really lead them to the place they are aiming to arrive at. 
He would campaign for forgiveness and understanding rather than con- 
demnation and retaliation. He would probably invite the West to reconsi- 
der the foreign policy which has driven human beings to commit suicide 

44 Christoyannopoulos 

in order to harm other human beings. He would probably argue that a 
neighbor' s resort to terrorism is the symptom of a failure on our part to 
love our neighbor in the first place, in other words, that our enemy's vio- 
lence is not separable from our own. He would probably ask Westerners 
to consider the evil which they are the cause of before they lecture their 
brothers on their actions. He would probably appeal for the time and 
effort committed to resistance to evil — the enormous "defense" 
budgets of "Christian" nations — to be spent on loving and caring for 
all human beings instead. 13 He would probably claim that if 
Westerners want to be treated with love and not hatred, they need to cul- 
tivate that love in the first place — "love your enemies," he says, "and you 
will have none" (Tolstoy 1937a, 250). 14 

Tolstoy did not witness the international terrorism of today. He wrote 
in his context which, domestically, was one of revolutionary violence and 
equally brutal counter-revolutionary repression, and internationally, of 
military escalation, nationalist passions, and alliances for war. His 
central main message was to call for all sides to forego any use of vio- 
lence and, in that sense, to try to "turn the other cheek" instead of striking 
"an eye for an eye" and "a tooth for a tooth" (Tolstoy 1937c, 1937e, 
1990a, 1990b). He thought this was the only rational response in the 
long run. Hence, on the same grounds of universal reason as best articu- 
lated by Jesus, he would advocate the same today — but he would expect 
the followers of Jesus to lead the way. Moreover, in our context, as then, 
he would probably argue that the state should be abolished given that, as 
will be explained below, for him, the state cannot but be a fundamental 
cause of violence. More to the point, he would encourage Christians to 
live a very different and simpler life of care and sacrifice for one 
another, not least since this would prevent violence and hatred from 
arising in the first place (Tolstoy 1898, 1934c, 1990b). Above all, he 
would enjoin Christians to enact the moral rules clearly spelt out by 
Jesus. Even in the face of indiscriminate terrorism, the challenge for 
the follower of Jesus is to refrain from reacting with force. For Tolstoy, 
Jesus and in fact reason itself both suggest that violent resistance 
cannot and will not work in the long run. 


Tolstoy's likely commentary on today's "war on terror" — the main 
subject of this article — has now been considered. However, since his 

Turning the Other Cheek to Terrorism 45 

religious and political writings are fairly unknown today, this next section 
extends beyond the immediate purpose of this article to point to further 
radical idiosyncrasies of Tolstoy's religious and political thinking, and 
their indirect relevance to his likely reflections on the "war on terror," 
first by highlighting some of the problems with Tolstoy's rationalistic 
approach to religion, and then by drawing a brief sketch of the 
Christian anarchism which his systematic Christian pacifist logic led 
him to advocate. 

Reason, Religion, and Morality 

According Tolstoy, the radical prescription of non-resistance could be 
reached by both religion and reason, because for him, reason naturally 
leads into religion (Tolstoy 1934e, 1934h). Tolstoy had decided that 
the existence of God could be rationally established, and in fact, it was 
this conclusion that eventually got him over his serious existential 
crisis in the first place (Tolstoy 1934h, 1987a). He further believed 
that all rational, thinking human beings would be bound to eventually 
find themselves in the same existential torment as him, until they 
reached the same rational conclusion that proved that God must necess- 
arily exist. Moreover, since God truly exists, it followed that proper 
morality has to be based on God, that only religion can provide a 
sound morality on which to base one's life (Tolstoy 1902, 1934d, 
1934e, 1934h). 

Besides, Tolstoy claimed that all religions and all the wise teachers of 
mankind have all come to this very same conclusion. Tolstoy studied 
many religious and philosophical traditions, and reckoned that they all 
amount to the same moral teaching — they all teach the same, delightful 
Law of Love. After all, if a proper relationship to God has to be founded 
upon reason, it is quite logical to conclude that all sensible religious tra- 
ditions must propose the same moral guidelines for human conduct. And 
for Tolstoy, the most articulate expression of such divine morality is to be 
found, quite predictably, in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Tolstoy reached 
the contentious conclusion whereby Christianity, properly understood, 
presents the most complete summary of all religions and with it the 
best illustration of the ideal relationship between religion and politics 
(Tolstoy 1902, 1934h). 

Is Tolstoy justified in extending Jesus' commandments into other 
metaphysical and religious traditions? For instance, would a Muslim 

46 Christoyannopoulos 

scholar truly identify with the essence of Tolstoy's interpretation of 
Jesus? Can Tolstoy's understanding of Jesus really help transcend the 
differences between and among major world religions? Or could it, at 
least, bring moderates on the two sides of the "war on terror" to open 
a peaceful dialogue in which new ways to tackle the problem of terrorism 
could be explored? Besides, can a religious perception of the world really 
be reached by pushing reason to its limits? Tolstoy's answers may be 
radical and perhaps overoptimistic, but they are worth reflecting upon 
in today's political climate. He may be one-sided in his interpretation 
of Christianity, but if he is right, at least in his radical assessment of 
the cycle of violence and the only way out of it, then our current 
course of action is less of a solution than a promise of further violence 
in the future. 

That being said, Tolstoy's rationalization of religion is clearly not 
without problems. For a start, his "proof of the existence of God is in 
fact far less straightforward and convincing than he thought it to be. A 
proper critical analysis of this "proof falls out of the scope of this 
paper, but the point here is that his particular blending of reason and reli- 
gion is not likely to convince most of his readers. Indeed, some have 
accused Tolstoy of detaching Christianity from its essentials (for 
some criticism on Tolstoy's view of religion, see Greenwood 1975; 
Maude 1930a; Spence 1967; Stepun 1960). 

In truth, Tolstoy's exegesis of the New Testament was probably too 
fanatical, too rigid in its literalism, too narrow-minded in its rationalism 
— and in that sense, he is just another example of religious (albeit non- 
violent) extremism. To be sure, even though this would contradict his 
own exegesis of Jesus' message, Tolstoy was in fact quite judgmental 
after all (something he seems to admit openly only in Tolstoy 1937c). 
He was quick to accuse many self-defined Christians of actually being 
unchristian hypocrites. True, he did not punish or use any force 
against those he condemned, but he did castigate many of his brothers 
that he thought had "a mote in their eye." He was fanatical about what 
he understood to be the transparent truth of Jesus' teaching. That is to 
say, in his severely judgmental interpretation of Christianity, he bore 
some of the characteristics which one would expect from a religious 

Moreover, he was also an extremist in the sense that he only swore by a 
strictly literal method of exegesis. He refused to concede that religious 
scriptures embody elements of myth and mystery perhaps precisely 
because the essence of what such texts address cannot be reached by 

Turning the Other Cheek to Terrorism 47 

too literal a mindset. Unlike the traditional (certainly medieval) approach 
to hermeneutics, he did not believe that religious manuscripts contain a 
symbolic or mystical dimension that transcends whatever literal or 
moral interpretation one can ascribe to them. For Tolstoy, the four 
Gospels are just competing biographies of the life of a wise and rational 
man, biographies that were then cunningly peppered by superstitious fibs. 
Christianity, for him, was about ethics, not mysticism, liturgy, or 

Many Christians may well (not unjustifiably) object to Tolstoy's 
prioritization of morality, to his disrespect for ritual and for the traditional 
Christian canon; but for them to prove him wrong, however, a bona fide 
and convincing argument on why Jesus' words in the Sermon should 
not be taken literally — or even on why the second "commandment" 
should be taken literally and followed dutifully, as Tolstoy remarks 
it often is, but not the fourth and fifth (Tolstoy 1902, 11-13, 2001c, 
40-42) — would have to be formulated first. Thus far, none of his 
critics have done that. 15 Undeniably, Tolstoy can indeed be accused of 
a somewhat one-sided, even extremist reading of Christian scripture; 
but this could work as a call for more moderate Christians to 
fully spell out their alternative but truthful interpretation of the 
Sermon's political implications. As things stand, however, Tolstoy 
does not appear to be so wrong in his analysis of the response to 
violence that Jesus advocates. Tolstoy himself may fail to qualify as 
what most people would consider to be a Christian, but he does highlight 
passages in the New Testament that are definitely part and parcel of 

In any case, aside from the question of authenticity to Christianity, the 
response to violence that Tolstoy encouraged remains potentially persua- 
sive even to an atheistic audience. Whether there is a hereafter or not, 
non-resistance, patience, and forgiveness may still promise a better 
future for humanity than the self-perpetuating path of violence, anger 
and retaliation. A solid case for this would require further elaboration 
than allowed for in this paper; but the point here is that whether or not 
Tolstoy is faithful to Christianity, the argument he makes for non-resist- 
ance — and the consequences of it for the "war on terror" — can also be 
defended on the ostensibly more scientific basis of reason. Tolstoy's con- 
flation of reason and religion may indeed be dubious, but the rationale for 
non-resistance to evil is both potentially justifiable on the grounds of 
reason on one hand, and undeniably written into the story of 
Christianity on the other. 

48 Christoyannopoulos 

Christian Anarchism 

Nonetheless, the political ideal that Tolstoy subsequently found himself 
arguing for may appear to some as even more radical than his understand- 
ing of religion. That is, Tolstoy ultimately rejected the very institution 
of the state as unchristian and wrong (for introductions to Tolstoy's 
Christian anarchism, see Christoyannopoulos 2008; Hopton 2000; 
Marshall 1993, 362-383; Woodcock 1975, 207-219). His understanding 
of Jesus' commandments (including the one not to take oaths, here not 
critically discussed) led him to conclude that since the very existence 
of the state is based on the threat of violence, as embodied in the 
army, in prisons, in the police, and so on, the state is therefore transgres- 
sing the instruction not to resist evil, and is hence an unchristian insti- 
tution. Moreover, the state's judicial system judges and punishes, again 
a contravention of Jesus' message. Also, a state actually defines itself 
against other states, thereby reinforcing distinctions between countrymen 
and foreigners, hence disobeying the commandment to treat all men as 
equals. Tolstoy's Christian anarchism is thus inseparable from his 
Christian pacifism, from his understanding of Christian non-violence 
and non-resistance (for an interesting discussion of the parallels 
between pacifism and anarchism, see Ostergaard 2007). 

Furthermore, that the church has historically cuddled with the state 
does not in any way redeem the state — for Tolstoy, it only further con- 
demns the church. Already guilty of (deliberately) misinterpreting Jesus' 
commandments, the church's association with the state simply provided 
further proof of its unfaithfulness to the essence of Christianity 
(Tolstoy 1902, 1934a, 1934b, 1934f, 1934g, 2001c). In Tolstoy's judg- 
ment, both state and church were fundamentally unchristian, both had 
systematically manipulated the masses for their own advantages, and 
hence both would ultimately have to be done away with by humanity 
(Tolstoy 1902, 2001c). So Tolstoy extracted some clearly anarchist (but 
non-violent) implications from his understanding of Christianity; a 
more elaborate analysis or a critical assessment of these Christian anar- 
chist ideals, however, extends beyond the scope of this paper. 

Either way, Tolstoy disapproved of any imposition of any law, divine 
or manmade, by humans upon humans — what we today miscall 
"justice," Tolstoy remarked, is merely brutal tit-for-tat revenge (Tolstoy 
1902, 99). For him, Jesus specifically commanded human beings never 
to resist evil or judge one another; and this could only imply that the pol- 
itical system that we are still based upon today would have to be replaced 

Turning the Other Cheek to Terrorism 49 

by some (perhaps perilous) anarchist ideal. And again, whether or not 
Tolstoy was correct in defending such Utopia, it is difficult to deny its 
starting point — that Jesus did clearly say that we should never use vio- 
lence against one another. 

In any event, Tolstoy was not alone in his radical and Utopian reading of 
the New Testament. But it was only after he reached his political conclusions 
largely on his own that he discovered that other individuals and sects had 
believed similar things before him. Thus in The Kingdom of God Is within 
You, he explains that it was only after he had written What I Believe that 
he was made aware of the similar political views of William Lloyd 
Garrison, Adin Ballou, Peter Chelcicky, and the Quakers (Tolstoy 2001c, 
3-33). And there are others that would also sympathize with Tolstoy up 
to a point: some early Christians such as Origen and Tertullian, and 
several late medieval sects such as the Hussites, the Anabaptists, and the 
Mennonites also read the Gospel as implying non-resistance to evil, and 
for some, as questioning the legitimacy of certainly church but sometimes 
also state authority (Brock 1972, 1981; Marshall 1993, 74-95). And 
indeed after Tolstoy, people like Jacques Ellul, Vernard Eller, Dorothy 
Day, Ammon Hennacy, and Michael Elliott have also interpreted 
Christianity as abolishing the need for a state as we know it (Day 1952; 
Eller 1987; Elliott 1990; Ellul 1991; Missey and Thomas 1994). 

So for all his apparently unique radicalism, Tolstoy's reading of 
Christianity has been at least partly shared by many Christians before 
as well as after him. Where Tolstoy is fairly unique, however, is in that 
he wrote the first systematic and extended explanation of how 
Christianity leads to non-resistance and, from there, to the redundancy 
of both church and state. In other words, of all these radical movements 
and thinkers, Tolstoy was probably the first one who most resembled a 
methodical Christian anarchist political theorist. 


Tolstoy' s reading of Christianity was fairly extreme, certainly provocative — 
he did not shy away from verbally confronting those who did not share his 
particular perspective. In relaying his views, this paper does not wish 
to offend those who would disagree with Tolstoy. Instead, the aim is to 
reflect on Tolstoy's alternative way of responding to violence, and to 
perhaps stimulate further academic discussion, especially among political 
scientists, on religious political theory and more specifically on the 

50 Christoyannopoulos 

theoretical political implications of Christianity. While this topic has 
always incited a significant amount of scholarly interest by theologians, 
there is little current research by political scientists that engages directly 
with the theoretical political dimension of the religion out of which 
Western civilization emerged. Tolstoy's extreme outlook could go 
some way toward stirring up this rather dormant facet of political 
science, maybe even toward inciting a dialogue between theologians 
and social scientists, a dialogue that could yield precious fruits for the 
unfolding twenty-first century. 

The Christian anarchist Utopia that Tolstoy elaborated from his exeg- 
esis probably seems too radical for humanity today. Still, if he were 
here now, he would be calling for those who define themselves as 
Christians to actually follow Christ and not resist evil, even in the face 
of terrorism, whatever the risk of being "crucified." He would further 
urge for a "policy" of love and care to prevent violence and hatred 
from arising in the first place. For violence to disappear, do not resist 
but love the enemy, and eventually, the enemy will have no more 
reasons to resist you in the first place; or at least, do not use violence, 
and the enemy will run out of justifications to use violence against 
you. For Tolstoy, only those who struggle to live out these radical instruc- 
tions from the Sermon on the Mount really "have God on their side." 

What is refreshing about Tolstoy's religious radicalism is that unlike so 
many counterparts today, it is rigorously non-violent. Although he is 
campaigning for more involvement of religion with politics, both the 
ends and the means of this involvement are peaceful. And while it is 
true that in the final analysis, Tolstoy may not qualify as what most 
people would call a "true" Christian, he does turn the spotlight on a 
part of the New Testament that seems to have been overlooked by 
Christians and non-Christians alike. Whether one is struck by terrorism 
or by some other form of violence, Jesus calls for one to turn the other 
cheek and to consider one's own prior violence in the first place. In 
Tolstoy's own words, what Jesus basically tells mankind is "You wish 
to destroy evil by evil, but that is unreasonable. That there may be no 
evil, do none yourselves" (Tolstoy, 1902, p. 87). 


1 . That the existence of God can be rationally established is, of course, a statement that has been 
disputed for centuries. Tolstoy's case is both quite intricate and ultimately not overwhelmingly con- 
vincing. His position is not dissimilar to deists: he rejects any notion of a mysterious presence of God 
in Creation and believes that what we have received from God is the spark of reason in us all (for 

Turning the Other Cheek to Terrorism 51 

details on his reasoning, see Tolstoy 1902, 1934d, 1934h, 1987a). In any case, this issue is only sec- 
ondary to the central focus of this paper (a Christian response to violence); it is mentioned here and in 
a little more detail later in this paper only to demonstrate how crudely rationalistic Tolstoy's view of 
Christianity is. 

2. The King James Version is preferred here because it is the version used by English translations 
of Tolstoy's political and religious writings. 

3. These words are usually ascribed to Mohandas K. Gandhi, but their precise reference is actually 
never given — and anyway, Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence was actually influenced by his 
reading of Tolstoy. 

4. In these texts, Tolstoy mounts a bitter criticism of the "just war" tradition familiar to the 
majority of Christians today, which he considers a grave betrayal of Jesus, informed neither by the 
letter nor by the spirit of his teaching. 

5. Tolstoy's exegesis here may have curious implications. It does not rule out that Jesus approved 
of hating one's personal enemy. Tolstoy, however, does not pursue this question further. For him, the 
meaning of this command became clear by referring to national enemies, and that was that. In truth, 
he would probably dismiss any suggestion that Jesus promoted any form of hatred, be it personal or 
national. In any event, this issue is secondary to the main argument of this paper. 

6. Tolstoy concentrates much more on these verses of the Sermon on the Mount than on other pas- 
sages in the Gospel, hence the repetition of his bias here. His view of other passages is best gleaned 
from his harmonized version of the Gospel (Tolstoy 1933). Other Christian anarchists and pacifists 
interpret the remainder of the Gospel in more detail and in ways largely compatible with Tolstoy's 
take on the Sermon on the Mount (for instance, Ballou 2006; Eller 1987; Elliott 1990; Ellul, 
1991, 1998; Penner 2000). 

7. Tolstoy here displays strong affinities with Wink (1987, 1992) and Yoder (Wogaman 2000; 
Yoder 1992, 1994), both prominent theologians of the Christian Left, but even more so with 
Ballou (2001, 2006) and Elliott (1990) in that the latter are more willing, like Tolstoy, to question 
and non-violently resist the Christian legitimization of the state. 

8. Tolstoy seriously entertained the hope that a growing wave of conscientious objectors would 
pioneer the Christian regeneration of society (Tolstoy 1967a, 1987b, 2001a, 2001c). 

9. Some argue that violence can be verbal as well as physical (for instance, Ellul 1970), which 
would imply that Tolstoy's verbal denunciations are themselves a form of violence. Tolstoy never 
addresses this grey area. By violence, he only really means the crude, visible, physical violence 
whereby a human being is physically hurt as a consequence of the actions of another human 
being; and — since Jesus verbally denounced religious authorities while also preaching and exempli- 
fying non-violence and non-resistance — it is this type of violence that Tolstoy takes Jesus' com- 
mandment to be referring to. 

10. Tolstoy's understanding of Jesus' call to "take up the cross" is obviously poles apart from 
Christian crusaders' interpretation of it as a mandate to slaughter infidels, but arguably much more 
in line with Jesus' teaching and example, as noted by Dave Andrews, another Christian anarchist 
(Andrews 2001). 

11. It is undeniable that the word "martyr" carries very negative connotations in the age of suicide 
bombers, but this has not always been the case. The martyrs of the church, in the beginning at least, 
were the saints who were cruelly tortured and killed for their refusal to compromise their 
Christian faith. The meaning of dying while trying to kill only came with what Tolstoy sees 
as church theologians' deplorable perversions of Jesus' teaching: these martyrs were therefore wit- 
nesses or martyrs, yes, but to their perverted "Christian" faith. The true Christian witness, for 
Tolstoy, can only be a martyrdom of love, forgiveness and non-resistance — certainly not of violence 
and hatred. 

12. Tolstoy refuses to blame the "great men" of history for the events which historians attribute to 
them — he wrote War and Peace precisely to reject the view that the Napoleonic Wars were 
Napoleon's direct responsibility (Hopton 2000, 28-32; Tolstoy 1993a). It seems to follow that he 
does not believe that the great evil men of history can be characterized as evil in themselves. For 
him, the evil is in the method more than in the human being who mistakenly adopts that method. 

13. As the next section will show, he would go even further and call for the rendering obsolete of 
the state by the parallel enactment of a true Christian (anarchist) society. Hence he would not appeal 
for public expenditure to be adjusted, but for each and every Christian to spend an equivalent time 
and effort loving fellow human beings without relying on the state to do this for them. 

52 Christoyannopoulos 

14. Tolstoy reports that this is said in Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, but he gives no reference 
details for these words to be traced back to their original source (Tolstoy 1937a, 250). 

15. None of the critics he responds to himself (for instance, in Tolstoy 1934a, 2001c, 34-93) or 
those that commented on his works after his death (such as Abraham 1929; Flew 1963; Fueloep- 
Miller 1960; Greenwood 1975, 1978; Maude 1930b; Spence 1961, 1963, 1967; Stanoyevich 
1926a, 1926b; Stepun 1960) really reply to him on his ground, based on a faithful interpretation 
of the scriptural passages which Tolstoy highlights. 


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